In January 2007, workers drilled into the soil to test the strength of the land where a private landfill was proposed south of Dade City.
Instead of proving that the land was safe, the soil boring caused a 4-foot-wide sinkhole to crack open.
And on Thursday, that crater sucked down the chances for the entire 90-acre project by Angelo's Aggregate Materials.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection rejected the Largo company's request for permits to build and run the landfill. Among the reasons for its decision was the 2007 sinkhole — mentioned only in the fine print of an Angelo's report but singled out by state officials as a key flaw in the project.
The agency found that the risk of sinkholes on the property is too great. The DEP said the company failed to show with "reasonable assurance" that the landfill could be built without a risk to the environment — echoing the argument of opponents ranging from east Pasco residents to Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
They feared that sinkhole activity could cause the landfill to fail, sending poisonous waste into drinking water aquifers, the nearby Green Swamp or the Hillsborough River, which helps provide the region's drinking water.
But after the DEP drafted permits for the project last year, even the opponents expected approval Thursday. Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller said DEP Secretary Michael Sole once suggested that approval was likely.
But two months of lobbying changed that, leading to backslapping among the critics.
"The governor and his team, once they got an understanding of the facts, they made the correct decision," said attorney Chris Kise, a confidant of Gov. Charlie Crist's who worked for the landfill's opponents.
Angelo's can appeal the decision, but company officials declined to comment Thursday while they reviewed the state's findings. The company, which invested millions of dollars in the proposal, had said the project would exceed state requirements.
The Angelo's site is near two landfills — one of which Angelo's owns — and a chicken farm with waste lagoons, but it is also near state conservation lands at the Green Swamp. In 2007, the state opposed a similar landfill proposed in Charlotte County within a mile of the Babcock Ranch preserve, a potential drinking water source.
A second look
But the rejection of the Pasco project hinged on a second look by the Florida Geological Survey — a DEP branch — that indicated more risk than its initial 2007 report found. Its new report released Wednesday noted that a different sinkhole opened at Angelo's existing landfill while a temporary stormwater pond was being built, 5,000 feet from the proposed site.
The state geologist's report also said the chance of sinkholes was "moderate-to-high," not just "moderate," and that heavy equipment churning the land could induce sinkholes. And it turns out the landscape contained more than just ancient cavities. The proof: the fine-print footnote in Angelo's consultant's report on the boring that triggered the 2007 sinkhole, which occurred on the west side of the site.
"That information cannot, to my knowledge, be found anywhere else in the entire permit application," geologist Clint Kromhout wrote. The January 2007 boring showed "active subsidence."
The sinkhole wasn't mentioned in the state geologist's November 2007 report, however. In the time since, the agency found the footnote as it continued to review the project, DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said.
But opponent Bill Blanchard, a nearby landowner, said he and other critics raised the issue of that boring two months ago with the DEP, then again a month ago. The agency requested the new review in January, Miller said.
"I found it hard to believe that it was an accident to leave it off," Blanchard said of the sinkhole's going unmentioned in Angelo's application.
The discrepancy was raised as Blanchard and Pasco landowner Robert Thomas bankrolled a counterattack to Angelo's lobbying to secure the permit. Blanchard even hired a former engineer of Angelo's who criticized the project in 2008 because of sinkholes, then left in a pay dispute.
At least 11 lobbyists registered for Angelo's or its critics, including former Gov. Bob Martinez, working for the opponents. His former chief of staff, Brian Ballard, lobbied for Angelo's, which added more lobbyists this week.
"For all the documents and numerous pages," said opponent Carl Roth of Dade City, "they never provided that compelling reason why it was a good idea vs. what Blanchard's folks did, which is why it wasn't."
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6232.